'Green Book' wins Oscar, sparks interest in local connections

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- People across the nation and world have opinions about the 2019 Best Picture Oscar winner, the "Green Book."

Among the critics is the family of Don Shirley, the African American classical pianist whose journey through the segregated South, accompanied by a bigoted white man named Tony Vallelonga, is the focus of the film.

They said the story presented onscreen, written by Vallelonga's son, portrays Shirley as talented but uptight and out of touch with the black community. But in the movie, Shirley receives life lessons when he hires Vallelonga to drive him to an engagement with help from that travel guide.

RELATED: The Green Book: How people of color traveled safely through North Carolina during segregation

Local people who lived during the Jim Crow era can tell you firsthand what it was like. People like Edna Rich Ballentine remember when the Green Book, referenced in the film, was a must-carry for safe travel through cities like Raleigh.

Her home on Cabarrus Street is directly across from an empty lot where a "colored only" business listed in the movie, called the DeLuxe Hotel, once stood.

Because celebrities, civil servants and others who weren't white were not welcome in all places in those days, they could depend on listings of safe accommodations, restaurants, and gas stations inside the Green Book, which was published annually, between 1936 and 1966, by a New Jersey postal worker named Victor Green.

"It was started as a way to guide what was called Negro motorists throughout the country, particularly during the era of segregation," said Earl Ijames, curator of African American History at the North Carolina Museum of History.

The DeLuxe Hotel on Cabarrus Street has since been demolished, and Ballentine remembers the other option that black travelers had in Raleigh during the era before integration.

"It was the Arcade Hotel on Hargett Street that took care of blacks, and when they ran out of space, they knew different people to call. So the network worked really well," she said.

Ijames said that network helped travelers avoid humiliating encounters with racists by showing them the parts of cities or towns where black consumers were welcome.

"It highlights that Hargett Street business district, and the Bloodworth Street corner in that area as it goes toward Southeast Raleigh," he said. "So you'll find establishments like hotels and gas stations, and also you'll find tailors."

If you visit the City of Raleigh Museum, you'll see an ancient, battered front door to a long-gone tailor shop, which was owned by a Jewish merchant who did not discriminate based on skin color.

"We put this on display to remind people that they have a connection to the Raleigh Green Books through the tailor," said Ernest Dollar with the City of Raleigh Museum.

Back at the state's history museum, a 1959 edition of the Green Book has been kept inside a glass display case. It lists businesses in Asheville, Wilmington and Durham. The Hayti district was bulldozed to make room for the Durham Freeway. There's just one building on Fayetteville Street, of the four Bull City establishments remaining, that was cited in the guide.

If you view the book and related displays available in Raleigh, it can help you truly see the conditions that prevailed during less-enlightened times in the United States -- days of intolerance that drove the plot of "Green Book," the Academy Award-winning movie seen by millions.

"It starts that conversation that we really take a close look at where these places are ... the services they provided," said Dollar. "And who were these individuals who provided these services?"

In addition to the copy of the Negro Green Book at the City of Raleigh Museum, the North Carolina Museum of History has Black History Month also has one on display.

Admission to both museums is free.
Copyright © 2019 WTVD-TV. All Rights Reserved.